There are in this world some contexts in which $10 million is not a lot of money. Departmental budget lines in the city of Philadelphia are not, for the most part, among them.
In Philadelphia — where a $1.3 million cut to the city’s emergency shelter system forced the largest men’s homeless shelter to cut case-management services; where the mayor once proposed closing 11 public libraries to save $8 million; and where District Attorney Seth Williams asked City Council for an extra $800,000 to spend on witness protection — $10 million is a lot of money.
It’s hard to imagine any city department or city agency — not one of which shows up at City Council’s annual budget hearings asking for less money — holding such a sum in surplus. And it’s a lot of money to go unaccounted for by a public agency entrusted to hold it.
But that’s exactly what happened to $10.5 million last year, as well tens of millions more over previous years, all administered by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office — and spent in ways the public (and indeed, the city itself) hasn’t been privy to.
Since at least the late ’80s, this office, like its counterparts in most Pennsylvania counties, has administered a fund for property — cash, cars, real estate and more — taken via a process known as “civil asset forfeiture.” As outlined in this week’s cover story and enabled under a few state laws, the DA can, in certain circumstances, sue to keep property with an alleged link to crimes like drugs or gambling and use those winnings for law-enforcement purposes. It is, potentially anyway, a significant stream of revenue for district attorney’s offices and police forces — a potential of which Philadelphia has availed itself uniquely.
In recent years, the Philadelphia DA’s forfeiture program has brought in an average $6.2 million annually; since 1987, the earliest year for which City Paper could find data, the program has raised more than $90 million. Last year, the DA reported a fund balance of $10.5 million, as well as $5.5 million in new revenue and $5.9 million in expenses — all of this on top of the budget allocated to the DA by the city.
How is this multimillion-dollar pot spent? The DA won’t say. The office cited confidentiality issues in declining repeated requests to provide details of how this fund is used, let alone a full breakdown of its expenditures. If there is a larger stream of unreported public expenditures in the city, we’ve never heard of it. DA spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson did offer to send a copy of an “audit,” but this was merely a list of 10 general line items (“Salaries,” “Vehicles,” “Real estate expenses,” “Professional fees”) with nary a dollar sign attached.
On follow-up, Jamerson would provide no further details, instead advising CP to file a Right to Know request under Pennsylvania law.
CP did file a Right to Know request, asking for an accounting of all moneys spent from the forfeiture fund in 2010 and 2011. The District Attorney’s Office rejected the request, stating that Pennsylvania law exempted the records from disclosure and required the office to “maintain the confidentiality of its records concerning property and proceeds forfeited.” In an appeal, CP pointed out that the law, in fact, protects only “the confidentiality of forfeited property or proceeds used in ongoing drug enforcement.”
CP’s appeal was rejected by the state’s Office of Open Records, which offered, as explanation, a single checked box that read: “OOR lacks jurisdiction over local agency criminal investigative records.”
CP isn’t, apparently, alone in noting the opacity of this fund. Neither the city administration nor City Council has access to any of it. A 2010 audit by City Controller Alan Butkovitz noted that certain DA accounts, notably the civil-asset-forfeiture fund, did not include the city treasurer as an authorized signer — in contradiction to a city accounting directive. “It is the controller’s position,” the audit noted, “that an entity the size of the city of Philadelphia cannot be effectively and efficiently administered if individual agencies decide which accounting directives they are going to follow.”
CP was, however, able to obtain from the state Attorney General’s Office copies of annual reports required by law for most years since 1987. While the reports include a breakdown of income from seized cash (which accounts for about three-quarters of the revenue) and the auction of forfeited property like cars and real estate, they describe expenditures only in general terms. Of various line items in the reports, two represent the bulk of spending: “Salaries” and “Municipal Task Force Support,” though the report does not clarify whose salaries, which task force(s) or what this “support” consists of.
Two line-items stand out in these reports for receiving no money at all: “Community Based Drug & Crime Fighting Programs” and “Witness Relocation and/or Protection Expenses.”
And while numerous officials have made reference to the DA and Philadelphia Police “splitting” forfeiture income, it’s unclear which agency gets what portion of that split. In testimony before City Council, former DA Lynne Abraham claimed virtually all of the money goes to the police. But (now former) Philadelphia Police spokesman Raymond Evers told CP he thought the larger portion went to the DA. The police use their share, Evers said, for everything from crime-lab expenses to vehicles, surveillance equipment, drug “buy” money, software and other expenses related to the enforcement of drug laws — but the bulk pays for police overtime.
But these descriptions remain, so far, anecdotal: Neither CP nor, apparently, any other city agency but the DA has access to the kind of line-item examination of this fund that most city finances are subject to. And there are reasons that’s not ideal: Several counties around the nation have seen scandals related to such funds, exactly because they lacked proper accounting: A New York City forfeiture fund was used for gifts and entertainment; a Virginia sheriff was found to have spent $4,500 on meals from such a fund; in Fulton County, Ga., forfeiture funds were spent on football tickets for the county’s district attorney.
CP’s seen no evidence of improprieties, and First Assistant District Attorney Ed McCann says in an email that the office is audited regularly by the state Attorney General. “Although the Office has some discretion within [state and federal] requirements,” he adds, “its use of the funds is considerably restricted.”
That may be so, but when it comes to $10 million, “some discretion” isn’t nothing.